Biofuels research strengthened at SA universities

Engela Duvenhage

Research to unlock South Africa's potential of becoming a significant producer of renewable bioenergy has received a major boost with the awarding of the Senior Chair of Energy Research (CoER): Bio-fuels and other clean alternative fuels to Prof Emile van Zyl and his team at Stellenbosch University.

It is one of the first three chairs of energy research to be awarded to leading academics at South African tertiary institutions as part of the recent initiative by the South African National Energy Research Institute (SANERI), a division of the Central Energy Fund (CEF).

SANERI invests R2 million per year over the next five year in this initiative.

The other two research chairs were the Associated CoER: Bio-fuels and other clean alternative fuels to Prof Sanette Marx (North-West University) and the CoER: Clean Coal Technologies to Prof Rosemary Falcon (University of the Witwatersrand).

This is the second SANERI award to Stellenbosch University. The SANERI funded Postgraduate Programme in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies was launched in 2006, with its hub at Stellenbosch University.

The CoER is a joint venture between members of the Departments of Microbiology (Prof Emile van Zyl and Dr Marinda Bloom) and Process Engineering (Prof Hansie Knoetze and Dr Johann Görgens) at Stellenbosch University, as well as the Department of Chemical Engineering (Dr Harro von Blottnitz) at the University of Cape Town.

"By joining forces between institutions, we can combine a core group of researchers with expertise in bioethanol, biodiesel as well as clean alternative fuels," says Research Chair Prof Emile van Zyl of the SU Department of Microbiology. He is a world recognized research leader in the production of enzymes by recombinant Baker's yeast that hydrolyse plant material and convert the released sugars to bio-ethanol.

The core team of researchers specialise in the use of yeast biotechnology to develop new production strains, process development on laboratory scale and process modelling.

They will also work together with some of the world's leading experts in the field, such as Prof Lee Lynd of Dartmouth College (USA). He is also a Professor Extraordinary at Stellenbosch University.

Through the Biofuels Research Programme (BRP), the CoER will drive postgraduate training and research in biofuels and clean alternative fuels at both Stellenbosch University and the University of Cape Town to ensure strong and much-needed local skills development in the field of biofuels and alternative fuel sources.

"Trained scientists and bioengineers are crucial if South Africa wants to provide appropriate production technologies suitable for local conditions to convert our valuable agricultural resources into sources of biofuels," says Kevin Nassiep, chief executive officer of SANERI.

Prof van Zyl's team will also assist to establish biofuels research activities in collaboration with Prof Marx at the North-West University, as well as other institutions in South Africa.

The Biofuels Research Programme also aims to develop completely new, world-first technologies in especially the bioethanol field, as well as to adapt new and existing technologies to South African conditions.

It is hoped that technologies to be developed through the programme will be commercialised both in South Africa and abroad.

Technology development for commercial biofuels production will focus on five key areas:

  • second generation technologies for the fermentation of starch and ethanol from ie maize, sweet sorghum, wheat, triticale and sugarbeet
  • using plant biomass (the most abundant source of carbon in nature) as feedstock for biofuels production by biochemical and thermo-chemical conversion, ie from waste material in the wheat, sugar and paper industries, as well as other woody materials.
  • process development to produce biodiesel from various fresh and waste vegetable oils
  • integrating biofuels and high-value chemicals production into a single biorefinery, where a range of substrates and products can be combined based on the conditions in a particular local industry and region
  • process modelling to produce bioethanol, biodiesel, bio-oil and other clean alternatives (ie hydrogen and methanol) from biomass.

"Biofuels, and in particular biodiesel and bioethanol, have gained much attention recently with soaring crude prices, but have to date hardly made a dent in the volume of petroleum fuels used," says Prof Van Zyl. "The development of a biofuels industry in South Africa will not only be positive for the environment, but will also stimulate rural economic development."

According to Prof Piet Steyn, acting senior Director: Research at Stellenbosch University, the CoER will make a substantial contribution into the University's high-level research expertise in the fields of biotechnology, sustainable biodiversity and the environment, and industrial technology. 


June 2007